- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - The Legislature on Thursday passed its first bill of the session: A plan to fix the way the state pays for public schools.

The proposal, which was approved Thursday in the House and Tuesday in the Senate, aims to finish the Legislature’s work on a Supreme Court order to fully pay for basic education. The court ruled in 2012 in the court’s so-called McCleary decision that Washington’s school funding was not adequate or uniform.

The court has held the state in contempt over its failure to figure out the remaining issues about how the state can fully pay the costs of basic education, as the constitution requires, while ending its overreliance on local tax levies.

Senate Bill 6195, which passed on a vote of 66-31 in the House, takes aim at that issue. The measure is headed for the governor’s desk.

The governor convened a bipartisan group from both chambers that met over the summer and failed to work out a compromise on how to find the money to replace the local levy dollars and fix the teacher compensation system. This bill would give lawmakers another summer and fall to find a solution.

The measure would establish a task force to find the state dollars needed to replace some local levy spending and instructs the 2017 Legislature to finish the work.

The bill has gotten mixed reviews from lawmakers in both parties, because many feel it does not go far enough, calling it a plan for a plan. But others hope it will be enough to satisfy the Supreme Court.

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, expressed concerns that the bill wasn’t giving the task force or next year’s Legislature the guidance they need to both fix the current problem and prevent it from happening again.

Manweller schooled lawmakers and the public during his remarks before the vote, saying the Legislature did not tell school districts to raise more money for locally negotiated teacher salaries - the biggest cost of basic education - through local levies.

“There’s nothing in our law that says they can’t just do it again,” Manweller said.

House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, replied that anyone in the Legislature who wants to change the state Constitution to no longer make education the paramount duty of the state should feel free to do so.

“This is about funding education for the over 1 million kids across the state,” Sullivan said. “Districts are using local levy money, because the state isn’t living up to its obligation.”

He did agree with Manweller and others on at least one point: He doesn’t look forward to having this same debate in another five, 10 or 20 years

The levy issue is the last hurdle to bringing lawmakers into compliance with the Washington high court’s McCleary decision, It’s also what lawmakers call the most challenging part of the work, and many have said they do not have the capacity or political will to finish it during this year’s legislative session.

The Legislature has addressed other issues cited by the court, including putting more than $2 billion into student transportation, all-day kindergarten, smaller classes and classroom supplies.

In addition to establishing the new task force, the bill would ask school districts for more details about the way they spend their local tax money to help lawmakers determine how much of it is paying for things like teacher salaries that the state should be covering.

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